Cornelius Vanderbilt who was also known by some as ‘The Commodore’ was the wealthiest man in the United States of America in the mid 19th century. He dominated the growth of the country’s transportation business. His vast transportation empire, however, started with just a simple small boat that operated in the waters of New York Harbor.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on May 27th 1794 in Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York. His upbringing was from a very poor background whereby he spent most of his time watching his illiterate grandfather toil away as a seaman. At the age of 11 years old, Vanderbilt dropped out of school to work for his father. It is from his experience with boats at a tender age that he acquired an interest in the sea. He paid much attention studying maters of the shipping business so as to advance the interest.
At 16 years of age, Vanderbilt received $100 from his father as payment for landscaping his land. He used the money to purchase a sailboat that he began using to ferry passengers in New York harbor. Just as business picked, he started his own company for ferrying people and goods between Manhattan and Staten Island. With this, the business grew significantly and during the World War of 1812, he won a military contract to distribute supplies to forts along the Hudson River.
The rise of the steamboat portrayed a major threat to Vanderbilt’s business, thus, he sold his vessels in 1817 and acquired a job as a steamboat operator for Thomas Gibbons, ferrying people between New Jersey and Manhattan. In his mid 30s, he had garnered many resources that enabled him to venture into the steamboat business. He was good at attracting so many customers such that his competitors even paid him to quite operating along the Hudson River.
By mid 1840s, Vanderbilt’s business had grown and he was operating a fleet of more than 100 steamboats. With the growth of the rail travel in the United States in the 1860s, Vanderbilt saw another opportunity and immediately tapped it. He began by purchasing railroads in New York and based on the same business models that he had applied in the previous businesses, he carved out his brand by improving service delivery and offering reduced fares. Within just five years in the railroad business, Vanderbilt had reportedly made $25 million.
Vanderbilt’s railroad empire grew towards the west to include Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. Vanderbilt was struck by a tragedy in 1868 when his wife, Sophia passed away. One year later, he married his distant cousin, Frances Armstrong Crawford who was 34 years younger than him.
During the last years of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s life, his son William Vanderbilt who later on became the heir to the empire looked over the business. At 83 years of age on January 4th1877, Cornelius Vanderbilt died after having been confined to his rooms for almost eight months.
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